Plus C'est La Meme Chose ...

by Phil Salinger | 6/9/08 12:46am

There's one story my mom loves to tell about her father, Herbert S. Landsman, who graduated at this Commencement 68 years ago.

Her father was eating lunch at the Hanover Inn. The maitre d' answered the phone, surveyed the room and approached him: "Mr. Goldstein?"

"No," my grandfather quipped back. "O'Brien."

Herbert S. Landsman died several years before I was born, so I only know him through my mom's stories. He majored in French and studied theater as well. (I also found an old D article about a play he appeared in.) He loved Dartmouth until the day he died -- he loved its intimacy, the loyalty it bred and the excellence for which it strove. And yet, as the Goldstein story illustrates, he was acutely aware of his status as an outsider. Unlike me, he did not join a fraternity. Had he wanted to, he would have had few options. No matter his talents, being Editor of The D would have been a much taller order for him than it was for me. It's funny. I've loved this College for many of the same reasons he did, but I have loved it more and my experience here has been richer because of the profound changes Dartmouth has undergone since my grandfather graduated and went off to war.

This March, I went with a few friends to a typical spring break island destination with the resolution to read some of the classic novels I should have read in high school but never did. I started with John Knowles' A Separate Peace, a tale of two boys at a storied New Hampshire prep school during World War II. In the first chapter, the narrator, Gene, relays his experience going back to the school many years after his graduation.

Upon his return, he is struck and horrified by the school's appearance, which looked "as though a coat of varnish had been put on everything for better preservation." To Gene, the strict efforts to keep the school unchanged had the opposite effect. The school had evolved into a memorial.

Gene's experience leads him to a twist on an old French saying. "Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change," he says. The more things remain the same, the more they change. I read this, and my mind turned to Dartmouth. I reflected on my college experience, and I thought back to my grandfather's, and Gene's, at the brink of the Second World War.

We talk much of the tension between tradition and change at Dartmouth. Throughout my four years at the College, Dartmouth has fought internally and become polarized over competing visions of what is essential to Dartmouth. Having devoted a substantial portion of my Dartmouth career to covering these issues in these pages, two things are clear to me.

First, Dartmouth may not be perfect, but the state of the school is strong. I had access to faculty in ways that my friends at schools with bigger graduate programs did not. The faculty pushed me. The students pushed me just as hard. And I spent four years able to be serious about school, participate in substantial activities and have a lot of fun.

Second, Dartmouth's primary shortcoming has always been and continues to be its lack of diversity. If the College is to fulfill its mission of excellence, it must attract the best students applying to college that year, a pool that gets more diverse every year. This is why affinity housing and diverse cultural programming are so important. Dartmouth will not attract a diverse student body and it will not retain students' loyalty after they leave unless it offers social networks and communities that appeal to them.

One thing Dartmouth does really well is the Greek system (into which the College does and should funnel lots of money). The Greek system provides meaningful communities to interested students and thereby does wonders for both recruitment and loyalty. The argument for affinity housing is really no different from the argument for the Greek system. It just applies to different students.

The issue of diversity at Dartmouth is intimately tied to the debate over the role of alumni in College governance. Perhaps because they loved Dartmouth so much, many alumni are inclined to try to preserve the College as it was when they attended. But maintaining Dartmouth would not really keep it the same. While it currently attracts top students and trains them to make their mark on the world, a "maintained" Dartmouth will do neither.

The diploma I receive today is from a better institution than that which graduated my grandfather 68 years ago. It is better because I had a much easier time finding my place at Dartmouth than he did and because I never suffered a slight like the Goldstein incident. But some of my classmates felt like outsiders in much the same way my grandfather did. Dartmouth's mission now must be to ensure that their children and, indeed, their younger brothers and sisters, have as enriching an experience as I have had.

That way, Dartmouth will have succeeded in staying the same.

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